The latest is Hanoi House. Located just off Tompkins Square on a block with an incredibly diverse array of restaurants, it was opened a few months ago by Sara Leveen and Ben Lowell, who worked previously at Buddakan and Upland. The chef is John Nguyen, who grew up in Orange County, California — one of the country’s hotbeds of Vietnamese cuisine — but has also worked mainly in Stephen Starr restaurants. Hanoi House is small and cramped, decorated with tropical storm shutters, wooden lattice work, and potted foliage that give it a colonial vibe. The layout is mainly barroom, with the best seats in a small raised room at the rear. Sitting there makes you feel like a spy in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
The beef pho (pho bac, $13) — unlike other phos in town — does away with plates of basil, sprouts, and mint, as well as the jars of vinegar, fish sauce, Sriracha, pickled peppers, and chile oil. But oh! The fragrance that rises up with the steam. There’s a hint of cinnamon, perhaps, and the double allium wallop of scallions and charred onions, but the main thing that tears into your nostrils is beef, beef, and more beef. Instead of multiple beef cuts, beef balls, and offal, there are only two things bobbing in its depths: filet mignon and brisket.
On the side you'll find pickled garlic and chiles, which you should dump in the bowl, and a spicy and garlicky house-made sauce, which ought to be reserved as a dip for the filet and brisket. Two other add-in options are available at additional cost: oxtail and marrow bone. Skip the marrow, which only takes up space, but by all means have some oxtail. The stringy and fatty meat serves as a contrast to other cuts.
Occasionally, pho ga is offered, with chicken instead of beef. This, too, is a formidable dish, and one just as popular as pho bac in the outdoor food stalls of the Vietnamese capital. Either soup is the best reason to visit Hanoi House, but there are plenty of others, too, like the bun cha ($21). When it arrives to a table, bun cha seems like a totally random assortment of ingredients, including a small bowl of rice noodles (called "bun," pronounced "boon"); a reservoir of sweet, thick broth swimming with pork meatballs wrapped in betel leaves, carved veggies, and irregular hunks of pork; a pile of lettuce and herbs; and rows of spring rolls.
The spring rolls are fabulous, bumpy and crisp and tasting of crab and pork. (They’re available as an app for $9.) Really, you can eat the bun cha any way you want. One method involves picking up little piles of ingredients with your chopsticks, dipping them in the broth, and then downing them. Another is to treat the bowl of noodles as a staging area, dumping everything, including lettuce and herbs, into it a little at a time.
The frog legs are a revelation, which come in what is described as a Cajun rice batter and heaped with pickled garlic and peanuts. They may never replace buffalo chicken wings, but they're meatier than most amphibian appendages.
Out of only 15 choices that make up the entire menu, a couple more merit mention. The side of brussels sprouts is salty and sweet and well worth ordering, and the beef stew, an excellent example of French-Vietnamese culinary cooperation, is tasty in a rib-sticking sort of way. (But please, Hanoi House, give us a larger portion of baguette.)
The menu runs off the rails with a few dishes that I'd charitably refer to as over-creative. Read the words "banh mi" and you expect an excellent sandwich featuring all sorts of ingredients matched with fresh cilantro and vinegary vegetables. Here, you get three tiny crostini with a schmear of liverwurst and lobes of sea urchin ($18). Enough with the sea urchin already!
A vegetable stew with a coconut-milk base tastes dull as dishwater, an essay in mellowness in search of a purpose. And a green papaya salad comes decorated with shredded pig ear that proves too much trouble to chew.
But the food is generally exciting; Hanoi House is fascinating addition to the city’s growing roster of Vietnamese restaurants. Hopefully, there will be lots more Hanoi-style pho in our future.